MUMBAI, India – Bishops in India are holding their plenary assembly in Chennai Jan. 7-14, focusing on “the ministry of love and compassion” in the country of 1.3 billion people.
The theme of the meeting is “The Joy of the Gospel” – based on Pope Francis’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – and will look at developing action plans to revitalize the outreach of the Church in India at the diocesan and parish level.
Christians make up only 2.3 percent of the population of the majority-Hindu country, and the majority of them belong to the Catholic Church.
Catholics belong to three major liturgical rites in the country: The Latin rite and two eastern rites, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches.
The Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) is canonically the National Episcopal Conference for the Latin rite Catholics. It is the largest Bishops’ Conference in Asia and the fourth largest in the world. It consists of 132 dioceses with 189 bishops.
Much of the week-long meeting will deal with the bureaucratic work of the CCBI, and the bishops will hear presentations from the fourteen commissions and the three departments of the organization.
The bishops will also look at the state of the Church in the country.
Since 2014, the country has been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is affiliated with Hindu nationalist groups. India’s religious minorities have since complained of increased harassment and discrimination.
Earlier this year, a prominent member of the party called for India to break off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in response to pastoral letters issued by bishops ahead of this year’s upcoming elections.
In addition, the Missionaries of Charity were investigated after two women affiliated with the religious order were implicated in a child-selling ring.
The Church has also come under increased scrutiny after a nun accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar of raping her several times. The bishop was arrested and released on bail – the investigation by the civil authorities is ongoing.
Despite these pressing concerns, the bishops will mostly stick to spiritual and pastoral topics during their meeting.
A day-long retreat will be led by theologian Father Anil Dev, who told Crux it would be “down-to-earth prayers and reflection on spiritual leadership.”
“It will be a time of reflection on the need to evangelize, the urgency and invitation to evangelize and the need to be evangelizers that are credible and moral,” the priest said.
The bishops were also scheduled to view the film The Great Evangelizers – A Documentary on Three Model Evangelizers of the Recent Times.
“The CCBI meeting is on evangelization. The theme of the entire 31st plenary session is the Joy of the Gospel,” said the director of the film, Father Anand Mathew.
“Bishop Raphy Manjaly, the chairman of the commission for evangelization, asked me to prepare a documentary on the Servant of God, Father Constant Lievens, Blessed Rani Maria and Saint Teresa of Kolkata. It is in English,” the priest said.
Lievens was a Belgian missionary who served in central India in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Rani Maria Vattalil was a nun murdered in 1995 after her work for social justice angered local criminal gangs. Saint Teresa is more commonly known as Mother Teresa, and the most world-renowned missionary saint in India.
Chennai is on the southeastern coast of India, in the state of Tamil Nadu. Christians, although still a small percentage of the population, are nearly twice as prevalent in the area.
The city is also home to the tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle, who tradition says came to India in the 1st century. The bishops will make a pilgrimage to the shrine during their meeting.